Proud day for Bertie as former secretary breaks down in the witness box


TRIBUNAL SKETCH:The Taoiseach was notably absent as his former secretary radiated unease and apprehension, Miriam Lord.

BERTIE AHERN must be a very proud man today.

His Ministers must be so proud of him too.

It's such a pity none of them could make it to Dublin Castle to watch Gráinne Carruth give her evidence.

They would have seen a woman, alone and trembling in the witness box, battling back the tears as she whispered in tones so anguished they were barely audible: "I just want to go home." It was so pitiful, it's just a pity Bertie wasn't there to see it.

He might have stood up and shouted like a man: "Let the girl go. It's me you want!" But that only happens in the movies.

The Taoiseach was unavailable to the media yesterday.

If he had been in Dublin Castle, he would have witnessed the distress of his former secretary, loyal servant to the last, struggling to maintain her composure in the face of strong but fair questions about his finances.

His finances.

If Bertie had been there, he would have witnessed her obvious discomfort as she continued to insist she cannot remember three occasions in 1994 when he gave her big wads of British currency and told her to tip across to the bank and change them into Irish punts.

Gráinne Carruth, who earned £66 a week back then, would have gone into the bank on each occasion and handed the teller bundles of money that were far in excess of her annual salary.

Six thousand, five and a half thousand, four thousand. In sterling. In cash.

But she just can't remember. She can't remember the foreign exchange element of the transaction. She can't remember splitting up the resultant punts and lodging separate amounts into Bertie Ahern's account, and into accounts in the names of his two daughters.

All she can recall is that she used to cash her boss's pay cheques and lodge a few bob from them, upon his request, into his daughters' accounts. "I always remember just the girls."

These were the days when people had passbooks, and transactions were recorded as they occurred.

Bertie would hand Carruth

the girls' building society books before sending her over to the Irish Permanent.

But of the amounts she banked on those three trips, by far the largest ones went into her boss's account. Carruth, to this day, still can't remember he had one.

"So you would have had three passbooks then, would that be correct?" asked Judge Keys.

"I only remember the two," replied Carruth in a faltering voice.

A few people laughed in the public gallery. But for the most part during her evidence, the audience just watched and listened in amazement.

To the even most casual observer, Carruth's obvious agitation would have been apparent.

She was forced to accept, in the face of the documentary evidence, that she had converted sterling and lodged some of it in Bertie Ahern's account. All she could say, the only thing she could say, was that she couldn't remember.

Truly, the Taoiseach, had he been at the Mahon tribunal yesterday, would have been proud of what he heard.

For he has told the tribunal, Dáil Éireann and the Irish people that he never had any dealings with foreign currency. (Apart from that one unsolicited whip-round in Manchester.) And Carruth, the woman who once worked in his office, was able to repeat what she has told the inquiry all along: as far as she remembers, she only ever cashed his pay cheques for him. She never saw or handled sterling.

The tribunal proved that this is not true.

"I can't dispute it. It's here in black and white in front of me. I don't recall it, but it is here in black and white in front of me," was the best she could manage.

"I don't believe I ever told an untruth," she said forlornly.

However, Carruth, echoing a phrase already used a couple of times by her solicitor, accepted that she changed sterling for Bertie Ahern "as a matter of probability". But this mother of three young children, who gave up her job as the Taoiseach's constituency secretary in 1999, is not in the same league as Bertie's cohort of amnesiac businessmen; that swaggering stream of pin-striped amigos who have blustered in and out of the witness box, brazenly vague and forgetful, and not in the least bit bothered that nobody is buying their tall tales.

(For those of you looking for something to do on Good Friday, here's a suggestion: Google "Mahon tribunal". On the left-hand side, click on "transcripts" and look up April 3rd, 2006. Marvel at the evidence from Tim Collins, Bertie's close associate who gave entertaining evidence last week.)

Carruth isn't like Celia Larkin either, who couldn't remember much when she appeared, but clothed her memory lapses with a certain style, addressing the tribunal's lawyer on first name terms and airily dismissing his rising incredulity with icy disdain.

No, unlike the others, Carruth was not able to hide the fact that she didn't want to be in the witness box. She radiated unease and apprehension. She only spent an hour and a half on the stand, but it will rate as one of the most uncomfortable tribunal sessions that observers have had to sit through.

At one point, she was asked why she changed her solicitor. At the outset, she had the same solicitor as Bertie Ahern. She met this solicitor to discuss what she knew before she went to talk to the tribunal in private session two years ago.

Carruth told Des O'Neill, who managed to be both solicitous and incisive yesterday, she "was upset and this was coming on a daily basis to my door and I just wanted it out of my house and my husband, my husband found Mr Millar".

A change of solicitor so, for Carruth, as any citizen is entitled to. Her husband, as he is entitled to do, found Hugh Millar, who took on her case.

Millar also represents Celia Larkin and businessman John Kennedy, who attended Bertie's famous whip-round dinner in Manchester.

One wonders if the highly regarded Millar had a Humphrey Bogart moment when he heard the identity of his new client: "Of all the legal joints, in all the towns, in all the world, Gráinne Carruth's husband walks into mine."

Perhaps the most telling moment of the morning came when O'Neill asked Carruth why she hadn't contacted Ahern when she finally saw the documents linking her to the sterling transactions. After all, she couldn't remember a thing.

She said she didn't contact Bertie because her children are her main priority.

O'Neill, gently, pressed the issue. Did she not want to clarify matters "of crucial importance" to her and her family? Why didn't she call Bertie? Carruth's voice began to crack.

"Because I'm hurt."

"Because why?"

"I'm hurt."

"You're hurt?"

Bertie Ahern's former office secretary began to cry.

"And I'm upset."

"Yes," soothed Des. "And what is upsetting you about your evidence before the tribunal today?"

"Because it's taking me from my family, and that's why I'm upset," sobbed Carruth.

"Is there any other reason, Ms Carruth?" asked Des, softly.

There was a tortured pause.

"I just want to go home."

A proud day for Bertie. A proud day for his Ministers, and the rest of his parliamentary party inbertiebrates.

Brian Cowen is in Vietnam.